Pacific athletes capture world’s attention at Olympics

Olympic athletes from Tonga and Fiji recently captured the world’s attention at the Summer Games in Rio – and for very different reasons. That’s no easy feat considering some 205 countries are competing, many with large contingents and world-famous athletes.

The region’s first publicity coup came early in the Games – actually, well before any events had begun. Tonga’s 32-year old flag bearer Pita Nikolas Taufatofua stole the show at the official opening when he came out extremely ‘oiled’ and bare-chested, dressed in nothing but a tapa (Tongan bark cloth).

Tonga's flagbearer Pita Nikolas Taufatofua leads his delegation during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016. / AFP / OLIVIER MORIN        (Photo credit should read OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Taufatofua became an overnight sensation on Twitter and other social media platforms and his celebrity shows no sign of abating. One tweet read: “Pita Taufatofua just increased tourism to #Tonga just by walking out into the stadium… What a guy!” He went on to appear on a number of popular American news and variety shows watched by millions.

The region’s next big moment came when Fiji beat England 43-7 at Rugby 7s to claim the country’s first ever Olympic gold medal since it started competing in the Games in 1956. Fiji’s win was doubly significant given that this year marks the first time that rugby has been reintroduced at the Olympics since 1924.

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Four years ago, Fiji’s Iliesa Delana won the country’s first ever Paralympics gold medal in the men’s high jump event in London in 2012.  He came back to Fiji a hero and went on to become the country’s Assistant Minister for Youth and Sports, a position he currently holds.

Within minutes of its 7s win, Fiji quickly became a viral internet sensation. The country went on to become the number one trending item on Twitter, and the most searched item on Google for the day. It made a great deal more people sit up and take note not only of Fiji but the South Pacific region as a whole.

One thing is undeniable. The sizeable global attention is pure marketing gold for South Pacific tourism. (The Rio Olympics is watched the world over and has an estimated reach of 3.6 billion viewers.) A next step could be to use these Olympic heroes as tourism brand ambassadors in destination marketing and development campaigns to increase awareness of the South Pacific as a holiday destination.

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The region could also build on the momentum gained from the Olympics to boost the profile of upcoming sporting events such as the Fiji International, an annual golfing event held since 2014, and the 2019 South Pacific Games to be held in Nuku’alofa, Tonga. The publicity could also be used to attract more international sporting events such as the recent Super Rugby game held in Suva in July to this part of the world.

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